Throughout the years there have been many American female icons - the vamp, the flapper, the It girl, Miss America, the sex kitten, the sweater girl, the pin-up, the Barbie doll, the sex symbol, the playmate and the bunny - but the very first was Charles Dana Gibson's Gibson girl.

Gibson's drawings of the ideal American girl first appeared in Life magazine in the 1890s. Tall, elegant, beautiful, with delicate features and an impossibly slim waist, the Gibson girl wore a tailored shirtwaist with a high collar and leg-of-mutton sleeves and a dark floor-length skirt. Her hair was piled into a high pompadour and she was often pictured wearing a boating hat.

The stylized drawings quickly became immensely popular. Initially based on Gibson's wife, Irene, they would set fashion trends that lasted until the First World War. Corsets became more popular than ever, catering to women trying to achieve that "hourglass figure" - a phrase popularized by the Gibson girl. The ubiquitous Gibson girl blouse and Gibson girl skirt sold tremendously well. For twenty years, almost every American woman between the ages of fifteen and thirty tried to get that Gibson girl look.

Another, lesser-known phenomenon that went along with the Gibson Girl was the Gibson Man. Handsome, strong-jawed, clean-shaven, and straight-backed, the Gibson Man was the ideal escort for the Gibson Girl. The young man was physically patterned on Gibson himself, as well as the popular author Richard Harding Davis. Although the Gibson Man was not quite as popular as the Gibson Girl, he still managed to create quite a trend. Until his appearance, American men had prided themselves on their thick beards and distinguished mustaches copied from European aristocrats. After the Gibson craze swept the nation, American bachelors ditched the facial hair and started going for a clean-cut, wholesome American look.

Gibson was in high demand as an illustrator, fetching up to $50,000 dollars - an enormous sum at the turn of the century. He licensed the girls, and they were soon turning up on everything from china plates to whisk broom holders. The icon remained popular until well into the twenties, and today is prized by collectors.

the excellent book Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias by Charles Panati

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